Like a Mighty Army
By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66
If 2005 wasn’t one hell of a year for natural disasters, then what was? From coast to coast, the United States suffered wildfires, blizzards, tornadoes and floods. And stabbing us in the underbelly were 26 hurricanes, including three shrieking furies that chewed up and spit out the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida in two months’ time. From the end of August to the end of October, Katrina, Rita and Wilma drove millions from their homes, cutting the region’s economy and the souls of its people to the quick.
The citizens of the world responded, including many Rhodes alumni/ae and students, who sheltered countless evacuees or descended on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to help clean up and rebuild the shattered landscape.
Here are a few Rhodes people who are part of that mighty army.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Overnight, Baton Rouge became Louisiana’s largest city, swollen to the bursting point with New Orleans evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. They needed everything, and the people of Baton Rouge, as in cities everywhere, gave everything they could.
Margaret Darden Browder ’60 retired from Cingular Wireless a year ago. Her church, First Presbyterian where she is an elder, partnered with the other downtown churches to aid evacuees.
“There were 24 women who were due to have babies momentarily at Woman’s Hospital,” says Darden. “First Baptist Church, which is next door, housed and cared for the mamas and the babies. In our youth center, First Presbyterian kept their families. And would you believe—all of those 24 mamas and babies and their families were adopted by families in Baton Rouge?”
First Presbyterian also housed 400 utility workers in its gym and federal marshals in the youth center after the families moved out.
As the evacuees settled around town, officials reopened an elementary school to handle the number of children from New Orleans.
“Every child, teacher and administrator is from the 9th Ward in New Orleans,” says Browder. “We inherited 6,000 children in our public schools.”
The community embraced the children. But Browder, a P.T.A. veteran, saw another need.
“I thought the teachers needed a boost,” she says. “They’re as down, deflated, destroyed as any kid ever was. They lost their teaching materials—the patterns, templates, all the decorations they’d paid for out of their pockets all these years. I talked to the guidance counselor and told her I wanted to collect money for teacher gift certificates at a school supply store. Her eyes welled up with tears. She called two teachers over and said, ‘Listen to what they want to do for us.’”
Says Browder: “They’re going to have more money than they’ll know what to with by the time I’m through.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
All creatures great and small—The levees began to break in the early hours of Aug. 29. The flood left people who hadn’t evacuated stranded on rooftops, in the Superdome, in prison. The pet population would have been stuck, too, had not members of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA) days before evacuated every non-human creature they could find. They knew the drill, having evacuated for Hurricane Dennis earlier in the season and Ivan the year before.
More urgently, the LA/SPCA headquarters was located in the 9th Ward next to the Industrial Canal, directly in the flood’s path.
“Thirty-six hours before Katrina hit, we evacuated approximately 300 animals from our shelter to the Houston SPCA,” says LA/SPCA shelter manager and New Orleans native Loretta Lambert ’96. “We returned to New Orleans within 48 hours of the levees breaking to begin rescue operations. The animals that were rescued after the levees broke initially went to our hurricane evacuation shelter in Gonzalez, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and then were sent to more than 150 animal shelters throughout the U.S. and Canada.”
Lambert and her staff then evacuated Gonzalez when Rita entered the Gulf. Official estimates put the number of animals rescued after the levees broke at 15,000.
“This was the largest animal rescue in our nation’s history,” says Lambert, who credits hundreds of trained animal welfare workers from all over the country who came to help. “While the majority of animals were cats and dogs, we also found birds, fish, snakes, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters—you name it, we rescued it. A separate group coordinated the rescue of carriage horses and mules.”
Occasional news stories tell of reunions of owners and animals who had landed miles away from each other. “Unfortunately, reunification rates tend to be low,” explains Lambert. “Our database indicates that 10 percent of the animals have been reunited with their owners.”
The LA/SPCA office is now set up in a warehouse in Algiers, across the river from New Orleans.
“There are a lot of unknowns for the city of New Orleans now,” she says. “The LA/SPCA is reorganizing and planning what the future of the organization will be. I may be working for the organization in New Orleans or statewide.”
“My material losses are insignificant compared to the tremendous suffering that both people and animals have endured,” says Lambert. Twelve of her family and countless friends lost everything.
Yet in the face of such daunting odds, Lambert, who holds a master’s degree in theology from Vanderbilt University, says “In the midst of so much devastation, you have to focus on the good outcomes, the successes.”
The Red Cross moves in—Also across the river, in Harvey, Lynn Crabb ’93, then mass care associate at American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, DC, set up kitchens in the five hardest-hit parishes south of New Orleans.
“Just before Katrina hit I was sent to Houston—I couldn’t get a flight any closer to New Orleans—to work with placing our volunteers and other staffs who were being sent to work right after the storm hit,” says Crabb. “We were trying to figure out who we needed for the kitchens and shelters. I got to see the Astrodome, with acres of cots, before the evacuees arrived. It was stunning to see the way it was set up, how they got people in, how it worked. We had volunteers from all over the country and the world.
“I eventually got to Harvey. The kitchens, which were spread out all over those five parishes, are generally provided by state Southern Baptist Conventions. They came from several states after the hurricanes. The Red Cross has a strong connection with the denomination’s North American Mission Board to work with them. Those conventions have 18-wheeler mobile kitchens and volunteers who cook. I believe our high was serving 900,000 meals in one day. In December we served about 50,000 meals a day—35,000 in Louisiana and 11,000-12,000 in Mississippi. I don’t know how much longer we’ll do the feeding operations, but we’ll keep going till we see viable alternatives for folks.”
Joby Dion ’99, a specialist in Rhodes’ Information Technology Services Department, is a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe in extreme southern Louisiana. Dulac, the commercial fishing town where he grew up and where his grandparents still live, survived Katrina. Rita was another story.
“Officially, Rita brought a nine-foot storm surge. It was high tide that night, so the water level actually rose another three feet. It was 10-15 days before the water receded,” Dion says.
When he went to see the devastation firsthand, he found it “jaw-dropping and depressing.” He thinks water and mud damage will render most of the homes uninhabitable.
It reminded Dion of Hurricane Juan, which did a similar number on the town in 1985.
“I remember seeing how slowly things went afterward back then. Our house was built up eight feet, and we stayed on my dad’s shrimpboat, but my grandparents lost everything. It took a long time for the insurance company and FEMA to respond. With Katrina and Rita, I knew it would be very hard to get a response from them.”
That’s when Dion went to work. By no means shy, he e-mailed the Rhodes faculty and staff asking for donations of cleaning supplies to take down to the citizens of Dulac. Dion has gone there several times now. The first weekend he took mops, buckets, brooms, “tons of bleach” and more than $3,000 in gift cards.
The Los Angeles Times picked up on the news and published an article about the tribe’s plight.
It’s a start.
Through good times or bad, no self-respecting Louisianian turns down the chance to party, so in mid-December Dulac had a Surviving the Hurricane Party. Free food, free live entertainment featuring the zydeco and swamp pop of Dion’s uncle’s band.
Les bons temps rouleront encore! (The good times will roll again.)
Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi
Sam Thompson ’03 is known for having run the Appalachian Trail. These days, he’s running a relief effort in Bay St. Louis and Waveland.
“I came down immediately after Katrina under the auspices of my home church, First Presbyterian in Vicksburg, which was very excited about helping down here,” he says.
Working out of First Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis, Thompson, who operated an Internet running apparel company in Dallas, (nurunsports.com) happened to be in Mississippi a few weeks before Katrina hit.
“Because I was here, it just made sense to do this,” he says. “I initially came to Bay St. Louis for a couple of weeks. It’s turned into five months. I’m committed to stay till the end of February, but most likely will stay a few more months. After that, maybe a couple of years. Everything is very fluid here,” he laughs.
Thompson and his nondenominational teams from all over the country essentially do contractors’ jobs, he says. They’ve gutted homes, “getting all the wet, muddy, terrible stuff out and then ripping out drywall, taking the houses down to the studs and spraying them with bleach to kill the mold. It’s nasty work that you couldn’t pay most people to do.” The economics helped the homeowners, Thompson says. “Contractors were charging $13,000 to gut a house, which is exorbitant. We’ve been rotating teams of 15 people every week.” Churches as far away as Seattle are a constant presence, weekly sending new teams to the site.
Today, a drive through the area reveals the studs of houses, “which is kind of refreshing because it looks like new construction, if you can look past the piles of debris everywhere.”
Thompson lives in an ancient Airstream trailer next to the church. He’s fed three meals a day. “I have no living expenses,” he says.
Thompson and his work were the subjects of a Nov. 14, 2005, MSNBC piece. The reporter described him as “a wiry, crew-cut ultra-marathoner.”
As for running, he admits his training has suffered, though he did win the Mississippi State Marathon Championship in November. To promote hurricane relief awareness, Thompson plans to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days this year.
“Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.
Long Beach, Mississippi
Ten miles northeast of Bay St. Louis, John Foutch ’05 works a similar gig at Long Beach Presbyterian Church. He, too, lives next to the church in a vintage travel trailer—not an Airstream, but one that has a “nice, tan color.”
The church’s sanctuary, built of concrete blocks after Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, survived. Fellowship Hall, a historic structure, “floated like a boat” 30-40 feet off its foundations.
Foutch, a native of Lebanon, TN, is an employee of Mississippi Presbytery.
“Some churches have adopted Long Beach as their place to come and work. Middle Tennessee Presbytery has adopted it,” says Foutch. “A church in Spartanburg, SC, recently purchased and installed carpet throughout the entire church. We don’t have any sort of budget, so any work that’s getting done is a result of volunteer groups providing the labor and in most cases, the supplies.”
Groups also work on homes, “anywhere we find a need and can match it up with the group,” says Foutch, who had planned to stay through the end of January.
He’d like to see the work documented.
“I want other folks with artistic skills who could produce a documentary to come down.
“Often, groups come down thinking they’ll do a weekend mission trip. Once they get here, they’re already planning their next trip down. Once you see this place, you understand the need that’s here and that will be here.”
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
From Memphis to Mobile—Robert Shreve ’08 and 20 friends from Rhodes and his hometown of Mobile went to Ocean Springs over fall break in October. They worked two full days. When he returned to Rhodes, he spoke to Tiffany Merritt ’02 in the Chaplain’s Office about organizing a student cleanup trip this spring. With a generous grant from the Bonner Foundation, it will happen in May.
“It was shocking to see,” Shreve says of the devastation. “I’ve grown up with hurricanes, and this is by far the worst I’ve ever seen.
The first day, the group sorted clothing at a warehouse where all the supplies from organizations around the country come in. Next was cleanup at the damaged home of Hazami Barmada ’07.
Late in the day, Shreve drove to Biloxi.
“It was completely wiped out,” he says. “People were living in tents in front of their houses. None of us had ever seen anything like that. We were silent.”
The next day, they went to Ocean Springs Presbyterian Church, split up into three groups and helped some church members with cleanup.
“I went back at Thanksgiving,” says Shreve. “Biloxi had made a little progress, but still has a long way to go. It’s overwhelming when you see it. At first, I thought, ‘With 20 kids here we could work for a year straight and not see much progress.’ But you can’t think of it like that. You have to think of the people you help and who appreciate it. Even if you work for a weekend at their home, it makes a huge difference.”
The Methodists are coming—Jimmy Whittington ’67, the mayor of Selmer, TN, for 14 years until he decided not to run again last fall, has also been a disaster response coordinator for 30 years. That post, he’s not giving up.
He goes where the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church sends him. He also goes where the U.S. government sends him. He’s that good. This time, the Methodists sent him to Ocean Springs. From there, he toured all of Jackson County to assess the damage.
“I had worked 30 disasters prior to Katrina, and I could tell this was going to be the worst,” he says.
“Officially, the Memphis Conference sent me south to find a place to house volunteer teams. I ended up at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs. They had a brand-new church on a 25-acre campus. When I got there they were already housing a Red Cross shelter and distribution center. In about three days I had a volunteer group from North Carolina that agreed to come, do all the cooking and provide the food. We then managed to make contact with two churches in Houston that had raised $100,000 in a week to buy tents to house people. So in about the first week, we had food, cooks and a place to house work teams. I got the first two groups from Tennessee and Kentucky down there within the first 10 days.
“We got the word out through the Mercy Center in North Carolina—a clearing house for volunteer work teams—and started scheduling people in. After we’d been at it a week, the emergency management operations of Jackson County met with us. Because we were the only organization up and going anywhere in that area, they wanted us to coordinate the entire volunteer effort coming into Jackson County. We accepted. When we did, that was really good because FEMA could then begin to be a backup for us. In fact, they put in our phone banks, our roads through the tents (some of which were sent from Russia) and did all the hookup for electricity, which took that expense off St. Paul’s Church. We eventually created a tent city that could house 300 volunteers a day. We’ve been housing just about the maximum ever since.”
With tractors, backhoes and front-end loaders, Whittington’s volunteers have moved debris. They’ve also rehabbed more than 1,500 residences in Jackson County. Groups come from everywhere—California, Washington state, Maine—and they are most welcome.
“I was astonished at the number of people I met the first couple of days who had apparently just dropped their lives wherever they were and came—with no idea of where they were going. We hooked up with a company out of Nebraska called the Orphan Grain Train, which ended up sending us 18-wheelers of food for the workers. So if you go work down there, the only thing that costs you is the gas to get there. You’re fed three meals a day and your housing is taken care of.”
In December, Whittington said the operation was still in the relief phase of disaster response. The recovery phase, he said, should begin early this year.
“When you’re down there, your focus is on what you can see,” he explains. “You want to help everybody at the same time, but you start with a house and move on to the next one.” The devastation is so vast, he said, that “the United Methodist Church worldwide could not take care of the Gulf Coast.”
Rebuilding—Julia Weaver ’85 was elected alderman-at-large for Ocean Springs two months before Katrina hit. She says it’s been a “wild ride.” One of Weaver’s first tasks after the storm was working the phone banks at city hall, trying to connect people with their loved ones.
Ocean Springs didn’t flood as severely as other cities, but residents lost the first block or two of homes along the waterfront because, says Weaver, “the city is built on bluffs and protected by Deer Island right off the beach. Past Deer Island is Horn Island. Much of our beachfront is 12-20 ft. high. When our big wave came, it beat itself out on the bluffs.”
In the first hours and days after the storm, the task of city government was to provide shelter, water and ice until outside agencies could reach the devastated area. During the second phase, the focus was on the enormous task of garbage and debris pickup. Cleaning debris—especially houses and cars containing toxic materials—from the beach, marshes and bayous is another problem.
“It’s very sensitive,” says Weaver. “You don’t want to disturb grasses or wetlands. We need those wetlands to absorb future tidal surges.”
The good news is that federal and state agencies will work in partnership to clean up the waterways.
With an eye to the future, Weaver and other local officials are looking at rebuilding.
“I ran for public office on a platform of good, effective government and that we were really going to push amenities to increase our quality of life—more soccer fields, green space, trails, beautification, that sort of thing,” says Weaver.
“We’re now determining what new flood elevation rules and building standards we’re going to adopt. We’re being encouraged by the governor’s office and the New Urbanists who have come and done redevelopment plans for each of the municipalities. They recommend adopting what’s called a “smart code” that encourages mixed-use, walkable communities and avoids sprawl. People here like the New Urbanism plans, especially the idea of towns being walkable. The towns along the coast grew that way as they were developing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People didn’t have cars, things were walkable, and residents had water views and access to the beach. We would be replicating what our grandparents did right.”
Weaver is also chair of the board of the Rebuild Ocean Springs Fund, a group of advisers representing churches, business, local government, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. They’re raising money to fill both immediate and long-term needs
First on the list are what Weaver calls community living rooms—roomy buildings where evacuees who now live in travel trailers can literally stretch out, do homework, watch TV and visit. Second, the money raised could fund a town architect to advise people as they build back according to smart growth principles and historic preservation rules. Third, the city would like to hire an arborist.
“One of the major assets in our coastal community and something we literally cannot live without in the hot months is our live oak tree canopy,” Weaver says. “The trees did very well in the storm, but like everything else, they’re stressed. They’ll need attention and expertise.”
Like everyone and everything else.